Human rights in the prison system

Issue 

The current federal inquiry into the over-representation of Indigenous youth and young people in the criminal justice system, which began in late March, has brought attention to issues surrounding incarceration in Australian jails and detention centres.

In February, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner Mick Gooda said jail should be a "last resort for Indigenous young people who, if locked up, often escalated to a life of adult crime".

Gooda said the inquiry could help to "turn the tide" by looking into the life-saving and cost-saving potential of approaches such as justice reinvestment, which diverts some prison expenditure to local communities with a high concentration of offenders.

He said over-representation of Aboriginal young people in prisons and court had been considered "normal" for too long.

"Clearly, when we have 25% of the total prisoner population comprising Indigenous peoples and a staggering 82% of the Northern Territory prison population comprising Indigenous people, we need to do things differently", he said.

Federal Labor MP Bob Debus, who is chairing the inquiry, said over-representation of Indigenous youth, not just in detention centres and prisons, but also in re-offending rates, "needed to be addressed".

Several submissions have shown that, economically and socially, diversionary programs and preventative measures are better options than remanding people in detention for minor offences or breaches of bail.

The New South Wales government has been under fire for its failure to draft specific provisions covering juveniles in the Bail Act. Implemented in December 2008, the changes made bail condition harsher, with juveniles being returned to detention centres for minor breaches. The breaches often stem from disadvantaged circumstances.

There have been a number of deaths in detention over the past month. Poor health was a significant factor in the deaths and little or no consideration was given to chronic health conditions at the point when the detainees were remanded in custody or sentenced.

Despite the Close the Gap initiative, Aboriginal people are still receiving similar length sentences. A number of those who died recently were detained in maximum-security jails, some on remand, for offences as trivial as driving without a licence.

In Western Australia, which has the worst figures for escalating Indigenous incarceration rates, research released in 2009 also indicated that Aboriginal people were remanded in custody at a higher rate, and referred to diversionary programs less, than others in the justice system.

A lack of continuity in mental health services in over-burdened and under-funded prison systems in some states has continued to be a key factor in custodial deaths in 2010.

Last month, one NSW father told the author his 21-year old son, Terry Gruiffith, suffering from schizophrenia, was shuffled between jails and hospitals for the preceding 12 months before he was found dead at John Moroney jail in December.

The constant transfers, the father said, had prevented contact with family supports, who could have spotted changes in his son's demeanour, and undermined a stable environment and adequate monitoring of Griffiths's condition.

Griffiths also said the state Department of Correctional Services (DCS) had not notified him or offered condolences for the death of his son, had not explained the circumstances surrounding his death, and had sent police to speak to the young man's grandmother instead of contacting him.

NSW DCS management of inmates with known histories of mental illness was criticised by then DCS investigator William Beale, when he gave evidence at the Glebe Coroner's Court last year.

In line with concerns expressed by the United Nations Committee against Torture in 2008 about Australian practices, Beale's evidence in the inquest of NSW Aboriginal man Adam Shipley also raised questions about transparency in investigations of custodial deaths.

Beale complained that his report into Shipley's death in custody was replaced with a less detailed one. This led DCS head Ron Woodham to refer the investigation of Shipley's death to the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

Transparent examination of custodial deaths in NSW is still under focus after ministerial staff said in March that they had no knowledge of the December death of Griffiths.

NSW DCS complies with a strict policy of not releasing information about deaths that occur in detention. As such, ministerial and departmental comment was not available to explain how Griffiths had slipped through management safeguards for vulnerable prisoners.

The 2009 inquest into the death of a Western Australian Aboriginal elder, Mr Ward, who died of heat stroke in a prison transport van after being arrested for a traffic offence, created an international dialogue on human rights in detention in Australia.

However, the scathing coronial report released in June failed to affect greater awareness across the country. In NSW only two months later, Marcus Holcroft 59, jailed for a breach of bail conditions, died of heart failure in the back of a prison transport van even though distressed inmates alerted guards that he required help.

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